For over five years, I’ve been writing about MST, military sexual trauma, initially as experienced by women Veterans. I had to expand that to include men. For both women and men the injury was compounded by the military’s inability or unwillingness to face the problem and hold perpetrators accountable. Who knows how long the problem existed, unspoken and unaddressed? I can tell you this much: a very, very long time.
Finally, light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act became law in December. Named for a young female Veteran who was murdered and her body dismembered at Ft. Hood, the law criminalizes sexual harassment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
After several failures to get Congress to act, the decision to prosecute these cases of sex-related offenses has been removed from the chains of command. Often, a complaint was shelved by a commanding officer trying to protect his own reputation. The new law bypasses commanders by requiring them to request independent investigations with 72 hours of receiving the complaint and to forward the complaint to the next superior office in the chain of command.
The law goes further by addressing the secondary injury of retaliation against the person lodging the initial complaint of a sex-related offense. Retaliation was both social—name-calling, shunning, etc.—and professional, as in victims being punished by work details or poor performance evaluations. For many years, fears of retaliation kept victims from filing complaints. I sat beside a young Navy Veteran at a luncheon several years ago. Raped while she was on duty, when she reported the offense, the Navy offered her a discharge. She later discovered that her discharge was less-than-honorable, which impacted the VA benefits she would have been eligible for.
The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act includes a process to track allegations of retaliation by putting special prosecutors in place.
The tragic death of Vanessa Guillén finally put a face on sexual assault in the military. We can only hope that offers some small measure of comfort to her grieving family and friends. Rest in peace, Vanessa.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.